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The Impact of Adverse Experiences on Children

Our early years are often clouded by the mists of time, with our parents and others reminding us in detail of events we remember of but little. Yet some experiences – be they happy, sad, or evocative in some way – sear themselves into our memory and are remembered vividly, even if as a snapshot.

Whether remembered consciously or not, early experiences may shape social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Long before they can speak, children understand the tenor of that which goes on around them. Parent-infant psychotherapy (PIP) is a field that looks at not simply what parents say, but how the infant relates to them in their company and how they interact with the child. A dyad is something that consists of two parts. A marital dyad or a mother-infant dyad examines the relationship between the pair.

From birth through infancy, children are oft seen either almost as an extension of the parent and lacking an individual persona or, more worryingly, are treated as an adult in terms of responsibility for their actions. They are blamed for being a ‘bad baby’ with regards to sleep or other habits. The baby or child that is seen as an extension of the parent can sadly and erroneously lead us to focus only on the impact of difficult events on the parents.

Such guidance is sometimes seen as that given to the lucid older child listening to and following advice. In the Qur’ān, Sūrah Luqmān is a beautiful example of a father advising his son. The advice is shared by Allāh to us all and for the rest of time. However, what does the infant experience? What did Prophet Mūsā (Moses) experience floating down the Nile and then being taken in and raised by the wife of the Pharaoh?

Experiences from birth – and even antenatally – all pay a part. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that can have long lasting and negative effects on physical and mental health. ACEs may include, unsurprisingly, abuse in all its forms, but can also be simple neglect as well as social and household upheaval. Household challenges could range from domestic violence simply being witnessed, to substance misuse in the home, to parental separation or incarceration. ACEs can even disrupt the way in which the brain develops in teaching us how to respond to others and to that which happens to us day to day. On the other hand, parenting that is loving, clear, and consistent can help guide us through our early years and allow us to become well-adjusted and able to trust others while avoid seeking solace in dangerous behaviours.

Enforced parental separation via divorce or removal by the state, or parental incarceration, or even inadvertent neglect on the part of the remaining parent as they grieve and struggle to be emotionally available to their children can all have profound effects and can result in ACEs.

There is a relationship between increasing ACEs and morbidity. Two thirds of the population have at least one ACE, with one eighth of the population having more than four ACEs. Four or more ACEs can lead to three times the risk of lung disease and smoking, 11 times the risk of intravenous drug use, and 14 times the risk of suicide attempts later in life. Six or more ACEs can reduce life expectancy by 20 years.

An evocative case in point is that of Dr Edward Tronick’s ‘Still Face Experiment’, of which video clips can be found online. It shows powerfully how a mother simply showing a face without emotion for a short period of time to her baby can lead to the infant’s palpable distress. We know that hospitals today leave infants with mothers after birth where possible rather than whisking them off to the nursery.

We underestimate that infants can absorb from all around them. The good news though is that children are able to heal, show remarkable resilience and respond to good care. We know too that there is hope and light regardless of the darkness. The Almighty can protect and guide and sustain and give a solution or a bright future if He wills. This therefore is far from a treatise of despair and certainly not one seeking to apportion blame. We set out with good intentions and do the best we can and leave, always, the results in the hands of our Creator.

Doing all we reasonably can is aided by being informed and aware. That which we may think little of – be it regularly arguing loudly in front of our children (divorce here may be a positive outcome for the children if angry rows cannot otherwise be resolved), or simply not being as attentive as we would like when we are in their company – are easily remedied. That which we are unable to change, including the actions of other people of agencies, we accept as a test and having done all we can, pray that our Lord makes matters easy for us in this world even before the Day when we meet Him.

Knowing and seeing the importance of child interactions hopefully gives us an appreciation of how valuable our time can be with a child. It also underlines the dangerous impacts of separation from parents or other acts leading to mental ill health and neglect.

From parental input to health and social care professionals asked to review a family, our actions reverberate beyond our own lifetimes and affect that of our children. Needless removals and casual neglect will weigh on our scales of bad deeds, but a cheerful and responsive interaction and caring for our children costs little and yet may weigh heavily on the scale on the side of good.


About Dr Zeyn Green-Thompson

Dr Zeyn is a Medical Doctor and a Psychiatrist with interest in Emergency, Perinatal and Neuropsychiatry. Born in South Africa, he read medicine there before entering specialist training Psychiatry in London and Cambridge.

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